Wild Steelhead are not corn, wheat, or cattle. They are not oranges, apples, or anything that we can control with expected specific outcomes and pounds delivered to market. Put them in a box and they will swim right out of it.
Even among anadromous fish, steelhead are the least predictable of any salmonid swimming the North Pacific. They are never a species of multitude, like Kings, Coho, or even Pinks, that come home in a rush of biological delivery to the rivers spanning the West Coast. They cruise along the edges, arriving to their natal rivers in fits and spurts, with dozens of life histories across each watershed. In short, there were never that many steelhead to begin with.
They are the ultimate pliable fish, bending to fit the needs of each basin and each population subset from California to Alaska. Resident rainbows spawn with female steelhead. Some smolts spend one year in their home river, some spend four. There is magic in these mysterious fish. In turn, they spur fanaticism in many anglers.
In the face of this, we stand at a precipice of collapse. Even the last best place is in jeopardy. We already have the roadmap showing what will happen to the Olympic Peninsula if we do not make fundamental changes. We must stop viewing steelhead, especially wild steelhead, as a commodity.
Even fish managers with the best science available aren’t sure what is going to happen year to year. They work hard to provide the best possible prediction of run counts, but we really don’t know what to expect. It is a guess.
On top of that, we have a marketing perception that treats the fish returning to rivers like the Sol Duc, Calawah, Hoh, Chehalis, Quinault, and others, as a never-ending supply—and we promote it as such. We have a hard-working guide community that built lives on showcasing, and exploiting, what this resource can offer the angling public. But now they are faced with an awfully hard truth: Adapt or die.
There’s also a tragedy of the commons occurring on the Olympic Peninsula’s rivers, as an unchecked guiding fleet has outgrown the resource’s capacity. After sitting, with more than 160 others, through two hours of passionate testimony regarding the monumental changes in management on the Olympic Peninsula, what was most apparent was how stuck some people are.
We must change.
Reducing season lengths, eliminating bait, and eliminating fishing from a boat on most rivers, are all prudent changes. Anglers can still fish, guides can still guide, and we can, and will, adapt. Think about British Columbia’s steelhead streams and Oregon’s famous Deschutes. No one is allowed to fish from boats in either place, yet they are doing fine.
We can blame so many things. Sea lions to gill nets to the Blob, but we as an angling community need to get our house in order. Nobody is born with the right to make a living off a public resource, especially a collapsing one. That is a personal choice guides have made. We cannot keep driving these fish toward destruction with techniques so effective that the majority of returning adult steelhead are caught multiple times. Even if mortality is below ten percent in catch-and-release fisheries, do the math after counting the recreational and guide boats at Morgan’s Landing on the Hoh. It is common to have twenty boats with two anglers each. Day after day. This adds up to significant mortality. And—among the fish that do survive—loss of spawning success from getting handled too much.
There are so many contributors to the decline of wild, Olympic Peninsula steelhead. Guides are only part of the reason. So much is out of our hands, with ocean conditions, the food web, droughts, and floods. This is why we must control what we can control.
The fact is, OP wild steelhead stocks are now consistently missing escapement goals. With escapement being the bare minimum of spawning fish needed to replenish each year’s numbers. We are like contestants on the old ’70s game show, Press Your Luck, screaming for “Big bucks! No whammies!” Soon, we are going to get whammied.
Tribal co-managers have volunteered to join anglers in reducing impacts. It is encouraging to see them come to the table knowing that change must happen on the OP. It is time to applaud both WDFW and Tribal managers for their willingness to make these changes. Because the status quo is failing the fish. Failing.
We can gnash our teeth and wring our hands, but the changes instituted by the Department are necessary, sensible, and scientifically backed. We must give these fish in-river sanctuary; places where anglers cannot reach them, and where they are allowed to rest and wait to spawn.
We can still fish through this restriction, but lessening our impact is the real goal because we cannot depend on next year’s run of fish to be counted and measured like pork bellies. We do not know what we do not know.
And to that issue, it is past time to fund and institute full sonar population-studies to accurately determine run size, timing, and take. Sonar is the gold standard technology of fish-population monitoring. It is used all over Alaska to control real-time fishing regulations over the course of both sport- and commercial-fishing seasons. It is inexcusable that we aren’t using it on the Olympic Peninsula.
We should also consider additional funding sources like daily or seasonal OP endorsements. These could help prevent financial shortfalls and put more enforcement on the ground to fight against illegal netting, poaching, and excess take.
If you have been on the Olympic Peninsula, floating a river like the Hoh, you know how special it can be. When your spoon or fly gets crushed, and a brawling, wild winter-buck takes you into your backing, you know how exceptional these fish are.
They are all special. They are all worth fighting for.
They were never a commodity and never can be. They are unique and wild, full of life, and we must make the changes to ensure their future.
Josh Mills is an obsessed steelhead angler, fly-tyer, and conservationist from Spokane, WA. He sneaks away to fish, bird hunt, and be outside anytime he can. Additionally, he has proudly served on the Wild Steelhead Coalition Board of Directors for more than seven years. He dreams of the day when his father and his young boys share a steelhead run together with him.